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Past Imperfect 

Herb Caen-inspired nostalgia is no substitute for dealing practically with the dot-com boom

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000

Page 3 of 3

And I found that column to be insipid, destructive, and wrong.

While Herb Caen was writing paeans to a disappearing life of top-hatted dandies, an immigrant population of gay militants was moving to the Castro. Asian people were settling in the Sunset. Russian immigrants were creating communities in the Richmond. By the time Caen was penning self-doubting examinations of his imploding Old City world, the Mission had transformed itself into a Hispanic immigrant neighborhood, and was on its way to becoming a Hispanic-Asian-bohemian artist neighborhood. Cambodian refugees were moving into the Tenderloin; South of Market was becoming home to a new type of technology company that would create, literally, a new world.

While Caen was writing lamentations about the disappearance of his beloved maritime and meatpacking industries -- brutal, back-breaking assemblages of jobs, in which human beings were used as beasts of burden -- a Bay Area-spawned technological revolution was creating the greatest jobs boom the region has ever seen.

All these changes created their own sets of problems. Most recently, the city's rapid job growth has created a seemingly uncontrollable real estate boom. With Caen's ghost hovering nearby, a significant portion of the city has decided that we can solve this by returning to a simpler, imaginary past.

That's a fantasy. There are better ways, real ways.

We could encourage the construction of great quantities of housing, so that new workers and old could afford a place to live. We could build sufficient office space to meet demand, so that exploding rents don't ruin entrepreneurs, altruists, and artists.

We could exhume the nostalgic intellectual legacy of Herb Caen. And having thus exposed it, we could re-examine it, then put it to rest forever.

In life, Herb Caen revealed in many of his missives that he was a man of generous spirit. And for more than half a century he made an entire city feel as though it shared a single soul. So in death I believe he would wish -- to reverse Mark Antony's lines -- that the good he did would live on after him, that the evil was interred with his bones, and that the San Francisco he loved would change, for the better, with the times.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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